Tuesday, August 31, 2010

End of the ferry era: 60 years ago today

On this very day in 1950, the ferry Leschi pulled out from the Madison Park dock at 9:15 in the morning for her final run to Kirkland, where, 20 minutes later, she tied up—never to return. So ended Madison Park’s long history as a Lake Washington port.

For most of the previous 80 years, Madison Park had been a critical link in the Lake Washington transportation system. But on that day, August 31, 1950, Madison Park, at least in transportation terms, simply became the end of the road.

The opening of the first Lake Washington floating bridge in 1940 had been the beginning of the end for ferry service on the Lake, but it took another decade for the era to finally draw to a close. Regularly scheduled ferry service between Madison Park and Kirkland had begun in 1900, but as we chronicled last summer (“Steamboat Days on Lake Washington”), Madison Park had long served as a vital transportation hub connecting communities on the eastside with Seattle. Once it became possible for cars to drive across the Lake, however, the economics of the Lake ferries became problematic.

The Leschi was the last of several ferries that had made the Madison Park-Kirkland run in the fifty-year history of the route, which was operated by the King County Ferry System. The Ferry Lincoln had served on the route for 25 years, up to the point where the floating bridge was inaugurated.

The Leschi served the route for its final ten years, which included a profitable period during the Second World War when gas rationing made ferry travel popular again and many workers used the ferries to get to work at the Lake Washington Shipyard near Kirkland. But when bridge tolls ended on the Mercer Island floating bridge in 1949, the ferry could no longer be operated at even a reasonable loss. Though the King County Commissioners voted to end the run in early 1950, the City of Kirkland briefly won a reprieve for the route which lasted into the summer. UW students living on the Eastside were said to be among the most disappointed when ferry service ended since they had been allowed to ride for only a nickel.

Although the Leschi later saw service on both the Vashon-Fauntleroy and Mukilteo-Clinton runs, sadly she eventually ended up as a rusting hulk on a beach outside of Whittier, Alaska.

Those interested in the history of the Leschi should check out evergreenfleet.com/leschi. Also of possible interest is a great essay on the Madison Park-Kirkland ferry run available at HistoryLink.org and a MPB posting about our neighborhood’s past life as port (“Madison Park: a Port No More”), which includes some historical pictures.

[Photos of the Leschi, top and bottom, from evergreenfleet.com. Middle photo, showing the Leschi at the Kirkland ferry dock, courtesy of the Kirkland Heritage Society.]

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